Aug. 31 will be the new start date for all students in Idaho Falls School District 91.
The date was unanimously chosen by the school board during a special meeting Thursday night. The meeting was watched by more than 100 patrons live in the Compass Academy auditorium and by more than 1,200 others in a livestream video on the district’s YouTube channel.
District trustees chose to delay to Aug. 31, instead of keeping the original start day of Aug. 26 or delaying the start until after Labor Day. Three official reasons were given by District 91 for the date change: the school liability issue being discussed in the special legislative session, which starts Monday in Boise, policy changes made by Eastern Idaho Public Health over the last week and high enrollment in the district’s online school.
“We don’t have the information to make a solid, educated decision, and we may be creating more inconsistency by rushing into it when we can wait and get more information later on,” trustee Hillary Radcliffe said.
Superintendent George Boland said that nearly 600 elementary school students and 400 middle and high school students have enrolled in the D91 Online Academy created by the district over the summer, which the district needed to make sure would be fully staffed by teachers when the school year began.
Moving the start date puts the district’s start at the same time as that in Bonneville Joint School District 93, which some trustees saw as a benefit for families that were connected to both districts. It was also the calendar that included the most instructional time for students over the course of the year and a move that allowed more time for teacher preparations.
“We heard in our board meeting last week that there are things that need to take place to prepare for COVID, and getting classrooms to where they’re comfortable and safe. A date of Aug. 31 would give them three days and a weekend,” trustee Paul Haacke said.
The school board received hundreds of emails in the last week, both about the potential change to the start of the school year and the current plan to reopen classes. Last week the board voted to add a “blue” phase of school reopening to the district’s previous three-phase plan for the start of the school year, which would see students attending school four days a week and having either online work or individualized lessons with teachers on Fridays.
The crowd outside Compass Academy before the meeting started and in the room during the meeting was split between two groups of demonstrators. Those in favor of the district’s reopening plan wore blue in support of the current reopening plan as approved last week, while the group pushing for the district to change its plan wore red as tribute to the National Education Association’s ”Red for Ed” program to support public education improvements.
Clay Dennert, a father of five children in the district, attended the meeting to show his support for reopening schools on Aug. 26. After the meeting, Dennert said that he was OK with the delay until Aug. 31 and that he was pleasantly surprised by the civility shown by the school board and the crowd of patrons.
“Everyone who was demonstrating or picketing, or whatever you want to call it outside, was pretty good about being civil and calm,” Dennert said.
Idaho Falls High School teacher Wendi Straub said that teachers would be ready for the first day of school regardless of where it fell on the calendar.
“The start date was never the issue we were concerned about. It was more about the district backing away from the yellow plan that we had agreed to,” Straub said.
One of the major concerns voiced about the “blue” plan is that it left the decision about mask requirements in classrooms up to individual teachers. During the meeting Thursday, Boland emphasized that the current mask order in place for Bonneville County would likely override any exemptions within schools.
“Currently the mask mandate does apply to schools so regardless of when we open, there’s a mask mandate,” Boland said.
Earlier Thursday, dozens of teachers from the Idaho Falls Education Association and families from the district had gathered in the parking lot outside the district office to protest the current plan for reopening schools. Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly and Idaho Falls Education Association President Angela Gillman spoke to the masked crowd in the parking lot.